The hidden kingdom, p.3
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.3

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Webs sighed, and Tsunami let go of him.

  “I swear I don’t know anything about a monster,” he said. “I didn’t see anything dangerous when I snuck in to steal Glory’s egg. Honestly it was really easy. It was the night before the brightest night, so you could tell which eggs were about to hatch, and I just took one and flew back to the mountains. I didn’t even run into any RainWings, let alone a monster.”

  “My parents weren’t guarding their nest?” Glory asked.

  Webs looked down at his talons and shook his head.

  That doesn’t mean anything, Glory thought, but she remembered the MudWing village and Clay’s mother, who had sold one of her eggs to the Talons of Peace for a couple of cows. She hadn’t missed Clay at all, and she certainly didn’t want him back. Glory hoped her parents wouldn’t be like that.

  Both Clay and Tsunami had been disappointed. Maybe parent dragons were always disappointing . . . especially when you’d spent years dreaming about what they might be like.

  Well, Glory didn’t particularly care whether her parents were the most amazing dragons in the world. She just wanted to meet other RainWings and show her friends that they weren’t all lazy fruit-eaters, like the other tribes thought. With their camouflage scales and secret venom, surely they had to be tougher and stronger than anyone suspected.

  “Maybe it’s a new monster,” Clay suggested. “Something that’s come to the rainforest since you were here six years ago.”

  “Maybe,” Webs said. “The Talons never sent anyone down this way.”

  “I can’t tell you much about this place either,” Starflight said, worrying at one of his claws. “There were almost no scrolls about the rainforest or the dragons who live here.”

  Glory knew that. She’d memorized every reference she could find anywhere to the RainWings, and all put together they told her essentially nothing. There’d been one scroll called Dangers of the Rainforest, so she knew a fair amount about quicksand, poisonous snakes, and deadly bugs. But even that one barely mentioned the RainWings themselves, and certainly nothing about creatures big enough to massacre the MudWing soldiers.

  Something chattered loudly in the branches overhead and they all jumped.

  “It was just a monkey,” Glory said fiercely, clamping down on her nerves so her scales wouldn’t change color. “Or a . . . a toucan or something.”

  “Can we eat toucans?” Clay asked hopefully.

  “Only if we can catch them,” Tsunami said. She flexed her wings and glanced up at the branches and vines overhead.

  Glory wasn’t hungry anymore, now that the sun had finally come out. Each touch of sunlight felt as if it filled her up better than any cow. With a twinge of guilt, she remembered the SkyWing palace and the sculptured tree Queen Scarlet had set up to display Glory on, like a piece of trea sure.

  There had been so much sun there — nothing like she’d ever had in her whole life under the mountain. Queen Scarlet would roll Glory into the sunlight and let her change colors however she wanted all day long. She didn’t try to talk to her. She never touched her or yelled at her or insulted her or compared her to anyone. Scarlet’s only wish had been for Glory to sleep and be beautiful.

  But I didn’t love it, Glory told herself fiercely. It was just new and different. A new, different way to be a prisoner and have my life chosen for me. I’m more than a lump of trea sure.

  I guess Scarlet found that out the hard way.

  “CAW! CAW!”

  Tsunami leaped into battle pose, her teeth bared, with Clay a step behind her. The others stopped as she glared around, looking for the source of the noise.

  “I’m telling you,” Glory said. “It’s only toucans. There’s nothing to be scared of. You’re just jumpy.”

  “Now why would we be jumpy?” Tsunami said. “Oh, right. The dead bodies.”

  “At least I told you about them,” Glory said, her ruff flaring. “You saw a dead body — of someone we knew — on day one in the Kingdom of the Sea and decided not to tell us.”

  “Guys —” Starflight said.

  “That was different! That was Kestrel!” Tsunami cried. “I had to find a way to tell you properly.”

  “Super job you did there,” Glory said.

  “GUYS!” Starflight yelled. They stopped and looked back at him. He was turning in frantic circles, staring out at the trees. It took Glory a moment, but she realized what he was looking for right before he said, “Where’s Sunny?”

  They all fell silent.

  Sunny had vanished into thin air.

  “SUNNY!” Clay bellowed at the top of his lungs.

  “She was mad,” Starflight fretted. “Maybe she ran off because she was mad at us.”

  “She was?” Clay asked. “Why was she mad?” Glory couldn’t remember either.

  “Run off into a strange rainforest on her own?” Tsunami said. “That’s not like her.”

  Glory closed her eyes and ransacked her brain. Poisonous snakes. Deadly swarms of ants. What were the other “dangers of the rainforest”? Quicksand? She opened her eyes and peered at the ground around them, but it was all plain dirt, tree debris, and tangled roots. Nothing looked like quicksand.

  “SUNNY! SUNNY!” Clay yelled again.

  Tsunami growled. “We made it through the Sky Kingdom and the Kingdom of the Sea without losing anyone, and now we’re two minutes into the rainforest and one of us is gone?”

  “She’s not gone,” Starflight said, his voice vibrating with panic. “She can’t be! She has to be here somewhere. I was looking at her only a few moments ago!”

  Glory turned her gaze up to the trees. Another gray sloth hung from a nearby branch, yawning. It looked like perhaps the least threatening creature she’d ever seen. She frowned at it.

  “Webs, what do you think happened?” Tsunami demanded, following Glory’s gaze.

  There was no response. They all turned around.

  Webs was gone, too.

  “No way,” Clay said, flaring his wings. “He was just here. I saw his face when we realized Sunny was gone. Maybe ten seconds ago. He couldn’t have disappeared in ten seconds.”

  “But he did,” Starflight cried. “He did, and Sunny did, into thin air.”

  “Ouch!” Tsunami said, clapping a talon to her neck. “Something just stung me.”

  Clay jumped and clawed at his neck as well. Starflight’s eyes went wide, and then he threw himself to the ground and rolled under the nearest low-hanging bush with his wings over his head.

  “What in the world are you —” Glory started, ducking to look at him. She heard a soft buzz as something whizzed by her ear, followed by a tiny thunk as it hit the tree behind her.

  She spun around and saw Clay literally disappear right in front of her. It was as if the forest reached out leafy arms, quietly wrapped him up, and bundled him away. One moment he was there, blinking dizzily, and then he was gone. A heartbeat later, so was Tsunami.

  Aha, Glory thought.

  She planted herself next to Starflight’s hiding spot and flared her ruff. She could sense the waves of pale orange and dark red rippling across her scales, but she didn’t try to hide them. She didn’t care if her audience knew she was angry.

  “That’s enough!” she called. “Come out here right now.”

  There was a pause, and then the air seemed to shimmer for a moment, and suddenly a dragon the color of raspberries stood in front of her, grinning.

  Glory had never seen anyone else use camouflage scales like hers. It was startling and unsettling and kind of the coolest thing she’d ever seen. Holy moons, she thought. That is awesome. We do that. RainWings, like me.

  Another dragon, dark blue dappled with gold, appeared beside the first. She was grinning, too.

  Rustling overhead made Glory look up.

  Suddenly the trees were full of dragons.

  RainWings curled around the trunks or hung from the branches by their tails. Several of them were colors she’d never even imagined. She saw deep shades of violet, iridescent peach, pale jade, and a yellow so bright it was like being stabbed in the eyes with the sun.

  We are beautiful.

  “Aw, look!” said the raspberry dragon. “She’s happy to see us!” He beamed at her, and Glory realized that small bubbles of rose pink were rising up from her talons to her wings.

  “Poor little dragonet,” murmured the dark blue RainWing. “Why are her scales so dull?”

  Glory blinked. Is she talking about me?

  “Shhh, don’t be rude,” said the first RainWing. “Hello, tiny one. I’m Jambu, and this is Liana. What’s your name, and why don’t we know you already?”

  “Glory, and the easily terrified black one is Starflight,” she said. She glanced behind her and saw Starflight peering out from under the bush. “Where are my friends?”

  The dark blue dragon — Liana — tilted one of her wings up at the trees. Amid the dragons clustered overhead were four hanging nets woven of vines. Sunny, Webs, Clay, and Tsunami were inside; they all had their eyes closed and hung limply like sacks of fish.

  “Are they OK?” Starflight cried.

  “Sleeping darts,” said the raspberry dragon, producing a tiny blowgun from a pouch around his neck. “Let’s just say we have some tree frogs around here you wouldn’t want to lick. Your friends will wake up fine in a few hours.”

  “It’s easier to meet new dragons this way,” said Liana. “We’ve had a couple of grumpy brown ones stumble in here, and for some reason they start biting us before we can even say hello. This way we get to chat first, while they’re still a bit groggy.”

  “Plus it’s more fun,” said Jambu. “Practicing dart-shooting on ourselves isn’t the same.”

  “They probably won’t think it’s so fun,” Glory said. “Especially the blue one. She can be a little cranky. Just to warn you.”

  “So . . . are we your prisoners now?” Starflight asked glumly.

  The dark blue dragon burst into gales of laughter, and amused noises swept through all the dragons in the trees.

  “RainWings don’t take prisoners, funny little black dragon,” Liana said when she could speak again. “Whatever would we do with them?”

  “Interrogate them for information,” Glory suggested. “Trade them for hostages or weaponry. Contain them to minimize any threats.”

  The RainWings blinked at her as if she’d suddenly started speaking toucan.

  “Just a few ideas,” she said with a shrug.

  “If we’re not prisoners,” Starflight said, “then what are you going to do with us?”

  “Well,” said the raspberry dragon, glancing up at the position of the sun over the canopy. “Is anyone hungry?”

  And then the trees began to scream.

  Starflight nearly leaped out of his scales. Glory felt her talons dig into the leafy dirt as she tried not to bolt into the jungle.

  The screams faded, and she realized that all the RainWings were staring at her quizzically.

  “Are you all right?” Jambu asked. “Wow, that’s a spooked color. You weren’t freaked like that by us! We clearly need to work on our scariness.”

  “I’m not spooked,” Glory said, gritting her teeth and regaining control of her scales.

  “I am,” Starflight stammered. “What — what was that noise?”

  “Oh!” Liana said. “The screamer monkeys.” She pointed up, and Glory spotted a pair of large brown monkeys lounging on a branch overhead. “They started doing that a few years ago.”

  “It startled us at first, too,” Jambu said sympathetically. “They used to make these deeper grunt-y noises, but now it’s all shrieking and gibbering like dragons being murdered. You get used to it.”

  “Do you?” Glory asked. On the one talon, that explained what the MudWing patrols were hearing from the rainforest. On the other, it definitely did not explain the dead soldiers. And on the third talon, why would monkeys suddenly start making different noises than they had before? And on the fourth, why didn’t the RainWings think that was weird?

  “Come on back to our village,” Jambu said. “We could knock you out for the flight there, if you want. You might be more comfortable. There are a lot of branches in the way.”

  “No, thank you,” Starflight said.

  “Absolutely not,” Glory said at the same time.

  Jambu shrugged. “All right. Then follow us.” He leaped gracefully into the air and spiraled up toward the treetops. The rest of the dragons did the same. It looked a bit like a rainbow exploding and spattering color all over the trees.

  Glory and Starflight followed them into the canopy, high above the forest floor, where they were surrounded by sunlit emerald green and the whirring whisper of tiny wings. Birds darted and hopped all around them, as brightly colored as the RainWings. Whenever Glory paused for more than a moment, purple and gold butterflies landed on her talons or head. Perhaps they thought she was a flower; they stayed away from Starflight’s darker scales.

  The RainWings moved through the treetops with a weird grace, using their tails or spreading their wings to glide between the trees. It looked more like swimming in the air than flying. Glory wasn’t sure she’d ever get the hang of it.

  But it made sense, since straight flying between the densely packed trees would be difficult for creatures the size of dragons. Starflight kept smacking into vines as he tried to keep up with them. Glory wondered if he was wishing he’d accepted the offer to be knocked out in a net like the others. She saw Sunny’s net soar past them, handed smoothly from talon to talon, from RainWing to RainWing.

  With a quick glance to make sure no one was watching her, Glory tried wrapping her tail around a branch and swinging in a full circle, like the other RainWings did.

  “Almost there,” Jambu said, landing beside her. His weight on the branch threw off her swing, and she ended up hanging upside down by her tail for an awkward moment. With a grin, he reached down and helped haul her back upright. Her back talons gripped the rough bark of the branch; it felt like ancient dragon scales under her claws.

  “You really aren’t from around here,” he said.

  “No,” Glory said as Starflight thudded down clumsily on the branch as well. “My egg was stolen from the RainWings six years ago.”

  “Well, I can take you out tree gliding anytime you want to practice,” he said. “I bet you’ll figure it out pretty quickly.” He spread his wings and leaped off again.

  Glory frowned at his departing pink tail.

  “Yeah, that was weird,” Starflight said, answering her unspoken thought.

  “Wasn’t it? As if he didn’t care at all,” Glory said. “He didn’t ask who stole me or where I was raised or even act like he remembered an egg getting stolen. As if eggs just vanish all the time, no big deal.” She scratched her ruff thoughtfully. “Well, whatever. Maybe they do. Maybe there is a rainforest monster, and the dragons are used to losing eggs to it.”

  “That is really, really not comforting,” Starflight said. He wrapped his black wings closer to himself, peering down at the forest floor as if he expected something toothy to pop up and try to grab him.

  Comforting. Glory couldn’t think of any particularly comforting explanations for Jambu’s lack of interest in her abduction. Perhaps he’s just a weird dragon who doesn’t pay attention to dragonets or eggs. Surely the rest of my tribe will care.

  “Come on, let’s keep up,” she said to Starflight.

  A few swings and glides later, suddenly all the RainWings around them veered up, spiraling even higher into the treetops. Starflight made an anxious noise as the nets whooshed by with their unconscious friends in them.

  And then the dragons started to land, and Glory began to see the home of
the RainWings.

  “Oh,” she breathed. She stopped to hover in the air so she could look at every thing.

  The iridescent colors of the dragons brought the hidden world forward; otherwise the village was camouflaged as well as any RainWing.

  Wide vine walkways, shimmering with talon-sized orange orchids, hung between leafy platforms. A few of the treehouses had low walls or woven ceilings; others were open to the sky and carpeted with soft white flowers like fallen clouds. Glory spotted a few of the sleepy gray sloths ambling or swinging between the walkways. She wondered if they weren’t smart enough to know they were surrounded by dragons who could eat them at any moment.

  This is the coolest place I’ve ever seen, Glory thought triumphantly. And it’s my place.

  “Visitors!” Liana called. She had one corner of Clay’s net in her claws; carefully she and the other RainWings lowered him onto a platform wide enough for twenty dragons. Glory swept up to land beside him and watched her tribe gently set down her other friends.

  Dragon heads popped up all around the village. Glory realized that most of them were in hanging contraptions like hammocks. She studied the closest one. It was strung between two trees, sturdily woven of vines and lined with violet feathers and blue petals. The dragon inside was impossible to see until he poked his head out; his scales matched the green and purple around him perfectly.

  “Clever,” Starflight said, tilting his head at the hammock. He glanced at the ground miles below them and shivered. “I certainly wouldn’t want to sleep up this high without something like that. Look at that hammock design — you can’t fall out, and with RainWing camouflage, enemies aren’t likely to spot you either.”

  Glory glanced down at her scales and saw a color rolling through them that she had never seen on herself before — a vibrant blue-purple she guessed meant pride. She was proud of her tribe. She’d barely met them, and already they were as impressive as she’d hoped. So there, guardians, she thought. All those years of making me sleep on uncomfortable rock ledges in the dark! And who are the backward dragons, exactly?

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